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The Role of the Multimedia Classroom in French Language Instruction

Edwina Spodark
Associate Professor of French
Hollins University
Foreign Language Association of Virginia Bulletin
Vol. 55, No. 2, September 1999
In recent years, large numbers of educational institutions here in Virginia, from the
elementary and high schools to the colleges and universities, have devoted enormous resources to
the technological education of their students by setting up multimedia classrooms. Hollins
University is no exception. In 1997, Hollins opened the Jane Margaret OBrien Multimedia
Center for use by its faculty for teaching a wide variety of subjects, from Mathematics, Computer
Science, Communications and Economics to Classical Studies, English and, of course, French.
This multimedia center is arranged in a traditional classroom style with students facing toward the
teacher workstation and a large projection screen mounted behind the teacher workstation. Its 20
Intel-based Pentium PC workstations and one instructor workstation are all connected with the
user-group software called ClassNet and each workstation has an internet connection via
Netscape Navigator browser software. This system allows the instructor to project her PC
screen, to view a students screen on the instructors PC, or to project a students PC screen on a
main viewing screen through a ceiling-mounted, high-resolution video projector. There is also
one laser disk player, one conventional VHS VCR, one multi-format VCR, as well as two 48-inch
TV monitors that are also mounted in the front of the classroom. The sound system for the TVs,
the laser disk, the VCRs, and the PCs allow the entire class or individual students to hear highquality audio via whole class projection or individual headphones. All in all, a dream come true
for a foreign language teacher wanting to incorporate more advanced technologies into a
classroom setting.
However, in my reading and research about technology use in the foreign language
classroom, I was struck by the following information from the article Implementing Technology
for Language Learning by Michael D. Bush in the 1997 ACTFL Foreign Language Education
Series volume Technology-Enhanced Language Learning:
Yet despite this intense interest [on the part of foreign language teachers and other foreign
language professionals], there is little evidence that technology is having any significant
impact on the way most students learn languages in todays classrooms. A West Coast
think-tank organization, the RAND Corporation, recently completed a study
commissioned by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office
of Technology of the U.S. Department of Education (Glennan and Melmed 1996). The
study took an in-depth look at the role that technology is playing and probably should be
playing in public schools today. The authors of the final report cited Becker (1994), who
found that 31.2 percent of the time high school students spent using computers was spent
pursuing academic subjects...[Furthermore] ...of the time spent on academic subjects,
students spent 2.7 percent of their computer time studying foreign languages, the lowest
of all the percentages for the other subjects shown in the table (288).
I somehow felt challenged by this information to come up with a course in French that would
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have my students using multimedia materials for a much larger percentage of their time and still
remain true to my pedagogical goal of encouraging and improving student use of the target
language.
Given this perceived challenge, my course goals and the possibilities that our multimedia
classroom had to offer, I began to develop a class for my fifth-semester French students where I
could integrate realia, text, audio, video, CD-ROM, the World Wide Web, and PowerPoint
presentation slides into the teaching of a language skills course. Although my course, Daily Life
in Contemporary France, used no specific textbook, I relied a great deal on the relevant material
contained in Through French Windows: An Introduction to France in the Nineties by James
Corbett (Ann Arbor: University of Michgan Press, 1994) and the second edition of Les Franais
by Laurence Wylie and Jean-Franois Brire (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995). I also
used articles from Le Journal Franais (check out their website for subscription information and
fun facts about France: http://www.francepress.com) when they were related to the topics we
were studying. No matter what the media used, all the activities I used in this course had as their
goal the enhancement of the communication skills of my students.
I discovered that having the internet readily at my disposal to display current, real-life
material to my students was invaluable in a course on contemporary culture. Although I still
occasionally used realia in some of my initial presentations, for example, French franc coins and
bills, I found that other materials that I had, often out-of-date, could not fire my students
imaginations and interest the way a well-constructed, well-illustrated web site could. The internet
even allowed students to examine and discuss the future of the culture under study. For example,
thanks to the French Ministry of Finance web site (http://www.finances.gouv.fr/), we were able, as
a group, to look at and discuss the symbolism of the Euro coins and bills long before they would
be available to the public.
The access we had to the internet and to the display equipment also allowed the students
own endeavors to become more central to their language learning experience. I directed my
students to explore everyday practices in France via the internet and display their results for the
entire class while doing a report of their findings completely in French. In conjunction with our
examination and comparison of the currencies of our two countries, we participated in a group
exercise where we went shopping at one of the on-line catalogue sites: Les Trois Suisses
(http://www.3suisse.com), La Redoute (http://www.redoute.fr/index.html), Les Galeries Lafayette
(http://www.galerieslafayette.com). At the site of their choice, the students selected two or three
items to purchase. Then, while I displayed their choices for the class using the main projection
screen, they explained to the class why they had made these selections and converted the prices
from French francs to American dollars - a skill we had also been practicing in this particular
lesson.
In another class, we were discussing the vacation practices of the French, from the
summer months off of the juilletistes and the aotistes to the jours de pont for major holidays. As
an individual exercise, each of my students assumed the role of a travel agent for a different group
of French citizens and developed PowerPoint slide presentations in French on various holiday
destinations for the class. These presentations included various illustrations, pertinent information
and occasionally selected audio clips from the French-language web sites that were available on
the top choices in vacation destinations for French tourists. Each student presented a different
location and, thus, the class was provided with an introduction in the target language to several
Francophone countries and their cultures.
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A lesson on museums of Paris culminated in the students constructing their own web
pages for their own personal art museums. In order to keep the project manageable, I instructed
the students to use the web sites for the Louvre (http://mistral.culture.fr/louvre/) and the Muse
dOrsay (http://www.smartweb.fr/fr/orsay/index.html). Students were to select only ten works of
art that they wished to have in their private collection. Each example was to be accompanied
by a complete description in French and the actual location of the item. Using their web pages as
illustration projected on the main viewing screen, each student described five pieces for the class
and explained to the others why they had selected those particular works of art for their Web
Museum. The students ability to provide these visuals to the class allowed them to express
themselves completely in the target language and to be understood by all.
Teaching Daily Life in Contemporary France in a multimedia classroom was a
tremendous advantage over courses I have taught in regular classrooms. We had immediate
access to current, relevant material at the click of a mouse. The multi-sensory environment
provided by this type of classroom accommodated all the various learning styles of my students.
The opening up of new and exciting avenues of exploration invigorated the material under study.
Most important of all, however, the students came away from this class feeling more empowered
and with much more confidence in their ability to communicate in French.